Arriving at Lena Hall’s midtown apartment, the space is a pristine den with a rock-and-roll flair: a white leather couch, a gold metal stool with a faux fur cushion, guitars hung meticulously on the wall, a white fur throw on a corner chair, vintage posters from her father’s shows crediting Carlos Carvajal.
Until a few years ago, Hall used that same surname. (If you check inside the Kinky Boots Playbill, you’ll find her bio under Celina Carvajal.) “It was very important to keep that name; it’s a generational thing,” says Hall of her choice. “Then I found out my actual last name on my father’s side of the family, this name Carvajal, is a stage name. So I was like, ‘Well, forget it,’ then I should change my name.” So Celina Carvajal became Lena Hall (a name she had been using in the music world, that she has now adopted completely). “I love the way it sounds,” she says. “I think Lena Hall sounds like Lena Horne, so it makes people think of a singer, think of a performer.”
Hall has earned her stripes as a performer, winning the 2014 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and now takes on that singer identity with her show at The Café Carlyle June 21-25.
The Carlyle is a classic New York venue. I think, particularly because you won your Tony for Hedwig, we think of you with a rebel vibe. What should audiences expect at the Carlyle? What do you like about performing there?
Lena Hall: I like the Carlyle because it’s such an intimate setting. There’s so much history there, and I feel like I’m adding to the history as well, and the Carlyle likes it when I come in and I do what I do best. They don’t force me to conform to what is expected there, but I do make sure that it is something that the Carlyle audiences will enjoy. I do a lot of storytelling this time around. It’s a very personal show. You’re going to hear me sing at my top game. I think people can come, and they’ll get to know me a lot better, and they’ll understand why I am the way I am, who I am.
What’s one song from your set list that you think gives people a glimpse into something they don’t already know about you?
LH: There’s a lot of surprising moments. I think probably the Elton John song that I do is the most bittersweet and personal moment in the show, and it definitely gives people an insight on what I gave up in order to get where I am today.
Many people don’t know that you made your Broadway debut with Cats and then did 42nd Street, these very classic musicals. Is that something that you miss at all, the old-timey shows? Do you have a desire to go back and revisit that style in your voice or in your performances in general?
LH: Of course. I’m a really diverse singer. I can sing just about anything. When I did the [Josh] Groban tour, he had me do “All I Ask Of You” with him. We also did “If I Loved You” from Carousel, and we also did a song called “Move On” from Sunday In The Park With George. I spent a good chunk of my life in musical theatre, and it’s forever a part of me, so eventually I will do a more traditional musical and go back to where I started, but for now, I’m just exploring the kind of rock side because it is what I do best.
Singing that way, with the grittiness and edginess, how do you keep your voice healthy, especially doing a full solo show?
LH: I don’t know. I just sing from the heart. It’s difficult, because it is a solo show and it’s been a while since I’ve been doing a kind of a long stint of a show. It’s just me building up the stamina.
I think singing is also a very mental thing, and if you have confidence in what you do, you can just sing anything, really, any time you want. I have so much confidence in my own voice that when it does waver a little bit or when it is difficult, I know how to finagle through it, and I know I’ll be fine.
The Hedwig tour is coming up, and you’ll be launching it in California. Tell me about revisiting Yitzhak, but also being the first person to do both roles. How are you wrapping your head around that?
LH: I said goodbye to Yitzhak. If anyone was at that final show, there’s nothing that can possibly top that, so it was really hard for me to kind of want to put him back on and go back to the role. But I think what I’m most excited about is doing Hedwig, because I sat and I watched it so many times from behind, from back there, that it will be such a trip to reverse myself and to be actually the one who’s being watched. I’m just excited to put my mark on it and tell her story the way I want to try and tell it.
Have you spoken to John Cameron Mitchell at all about if the story changes when a female actress plays the role?
LH: We haven’t talked about that yet. But I don’t think that it does, because when it all comes down to it, we’re telling this story about this person, and this person was a man and had a botched sex job and is now living as a woman. I have to go tell that story somehow. I thought, since I am so feminine, since I am a woman, I think that bringing more of a masculine side when I do it will help the illusion of having had been a man. It helps that I will be playing Yitzhak beforehand, because it will give me that male sensibility.
It’s kind of a mind game, trying to figure out how I can trick the audience into thinking that I was a man, so that’s important to me, but also, just clarity of story and making sure that the audience is completely clear on what’s going on and that they’re on her side and the rest will just fall into place. What’s most important is finding her voice, finding her walk, finding her physicality.
So the differentiation is more along the lines of: Neil Patrick Harris is different from Andrew Rannells is different from Lena Hall, less so than male Hedwigs are different from a female Hedwig.
LH: Exactly. They spent more time looking more gaunt, looking more feminine, looking more…and I don’t have to do that, because I am that. I have to go the opposite direction. That’s a fun challenge for me. I got an email from the costumer and from the stage manager, like, “When are you free to go pick keys so we can re-orchestrate the show?” And I’m like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m doing this again.”
Is there a particular Hedwig song that you’re most excited to sing?
LH: I’ve done “Origin of Love” a bit, and I love that song. It is one of my favorite songs of all time. But I think “Wicked Little Town” in context, like to do it within the show, the first time and the reprise as Tommy Gnosis, I think that’ll be a really cathartic moment for me. People ask me, “What are you going to do as Tommy? Are you going to be topless?” It’s up to costumes, and I’ll probably have a long discussion with the director and with John and with everyone to see what the right thing to do is. Maybe we can find a look that they had where it has this cool glam rock look without being completely, utterly, just naked topless.
Well, speaking of baring it all, it sounds like this Carlyle show is very emotionally naked.
LH: It’s a way to open myself up and bare my soul and my life to strangers. It’s a therapeutic show for me. I do reveal a lot about how I became Lena Hall and how my voice developed this way. People ask me questions all the time, and there’s a lot of answers in there.